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Spotlight On . . .
Robert J. Sawyer
From the December 1997 issue of Fingerprints, the
newsletter of the Crime Writers of Canada. Interview conducted
in November 1997 by Jim McBride. This interview focuses on
Robert J. Sawyer as a mystery-fiction writer; many of
Sawyer's novels are science-fiction/mystery crossovers; indeed,
Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, declared
Sawyer's Illegal Alien to be
"the best Canadian mystery of 1997."
Fingerprints: Where were you born?
Rob: Ottawa in 1960 but my family moved to Toronto a
few months later so that my father could take a teaching post at
the University of Toronto. I've lived in or near Toronto ever
Fingerprints: What got you started in writing?
Rob: My first publication was in the literary magazine of
Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in Toronto (where I did a Bachelor
of Applied Arts degree in Radio and Television Arts). I managed
to re-sell the story to an
anthology co-edited by
and, after that, I was hooked. Except for four months in a
bookstore, and eight months as a teaching assistant, I've never
had any other full-time job besides writing.
Fingerprints: How do you plan your writing? Do you start
with a crime first, or with a character?
Rob: Oh, I think you've got to start with the crime
first. Indeed, the only time I ever get blocked in my writing is
when I foolishly start writing a crime-related story before I
know who did it and why. Characterization is very important to
me, but I develop it as extension of and counterpoint to an
already conceived plot.
Fingerprints: Do you completely plot a book or story
before you start?
Rob: No, I only have the bare bones in mind unless, of
course, I've had to produce something more substantial in order
to secure a publishing contract. Even then, I try to be as vague
as possible. If I've worked everything out up front, there's no
excitement in discovering things at the keyboard during the
Fingerprints: How do you find the many interesting
characters in your books?
Rob: The characters almost always come out of the
research I do. For instance, in
Frameshift, Pierre Tardivel started
out simply as a man at risk for a genetic disorder, but as I
learned more about such things, his background, motivations, and
thoughts grew more complex and subtle. I really do believe what
Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche said: "If you want to get across an
idea, wrap it up in a person."
Fingerprints: You publish very successful science fiction
as well as mysteries. Do you find this an easy crossover?
Rob: Oh, yes not only is it an easy crossover, but
it's a natural one.
Science fiction and mystery have a great deal in
common. Both prize the intellectual process of puzzle solving,
and both require stories to be plausible and hinge on the way
things really do work. In well-written science fiction, you don't explain the
background of the story; rather, you drop subtle clues throughout
the text, letting the reader piece together the nature of reality
in the world you're portraying; the science-fiction reader is a natural
detective the genre demands it. The success I've had has
always been based on giving equal weight to the mystery and science-fiction
aspects, instead of favoring one over the other. For instance,
my The Terminal Experiment got
glowing reviews in both The Toronto
Star and The Globe and Mail. But in The Star
it was reviewed as science fiction by Henry Mietkiewicz, whereas in
The Globe it was reviewed as mystery by Margaret Cannon.
Fingerprints: Do you have any advice for anyone
interested in writing science fiction?
Rob: As a business, science fiction is very similar to mystery. Both
have healthy short-fiction marketplaces, dominated by Dell
Magazines the same people who publish Ellery Queen's
and Hitchcock's also publish the top two science-fiction magazines,
Analog and Asimov's. Both genres are series
oriented: if you want to develop a character and write book after
book about him, her or it you can. Both are
convention-driven businesses: just as there are lots of mystery
conventions, so, too, there are lots of
science-fiction conventions. And both
research-driven genres. You can't write a
really good mystery without doing lots of research; the same is
true of science fiction. My advice for those wanting to break into science fiction is the
same advice I'd give for those wanting to break into mystery:
start with short fiction, then try to sell a novel. And, just as
in mystery, I'd say the greenest pastures are in New York; don't
be afraid to tackle the American market, and don't worry about
Canadian content I've never had the
slightest problem selling flagrantly Canadian work in the States.
Fingerprints: Where and how do you write?
Rob: I've got an office in my home, filled with plants.
I still write with
WordStar for DOS, which I love because
it allows me to touch-type everything including commands; my
hands never leave the home row. My wife Carolyn works for me
full-time as my assistant; she has a larger office adjacent to
mine with photocopier, fax machine, filing cabinets, and so on.
Fingerprints: When do you write?
Rob: I try to put in an honest six or seven hours of work
each day, but it's usually spread out over about fourteen hours,
with lots of breaks. I'm a late riser, and often am working well
into the evening. And I firmly believe that you've got to have a
real life, so I don't work on weekends I reserve that time for
family and friends.
Fingerprints: Do you have any special writing habits to
get you going and keep you going?
Rob: I need silence. I set word-count goals (2,000 words
a day during the first-draft stage), and am constantly checking
my progress. When I hit that 2,000 which is quite hard to do
on many days I quit, sometimes even in the middle of a
Fingerprints: Who are your favorite authors?
Rob: In mystery, Eric Wright and Robert B. Parker; in science fiction,
Arthur C. Clarke. Outside of the
genres, Carol Shields and Robertson Davies.
Fingerprints: Are there any authors that greatly
influenced you and that you used as a model?
Rob: Certainly science-fiction writer Frederik Pohl, who, when he's
good, brilliantly integrates his characters and his ideas. Also
Harper Lee; To Kill a Mockingbird had a profound impact on
me as a writer. Robert B. Parker for dialog; and John Jay
Osborn, Jr. who wrote the novel The Paper Chase had
a big impact on how I structure scenes.
Fingerprints: What are your latest books that you have
Rob: Illegal Alien just
came out; it's a courtroom drama with an extraterrestrial
defendant. Factoring Humanity
comes out in June 1998; I think it's my best novel yet, but
really doesn't have much of a mystery component, although I
suspect fans of The Terminal Experiment will like it
anyway. The book I'm writing now, Mosaic, deals in part
with a man who has certain knowledge that he will be murdered
twenty years hence, but doesn't know who will do it or why.
Fingerprints: Do you have any advice for CWC Members?
Rob: Yes stay in the Crime Writers of Canada! I've
been in lots of writing groups over the years, and the Crime
Writers of Canada is the best. The amount this organization has
done to increase the profile and credibility of Canadian crime
fiction is phenomenal. You know, there's also a Canadian science-fiction
writers group called "SF Canada," but the publishing world has
taken no notice of it at all. Everyone knows the CWC, though!
Fingerprints: Any tips for aspiring crime writers?
Rob: Two tips, intertwined: On the one hand, never give
up. Perseverance is incredibly important in this game, and the
ones who come out on top aren't necessarily the best writers,
but, rather, are the ones who didn't fall by the wayside. On the
other hand, if you can think of anything else that would make you
happy instead of being a writer, then get out now, and do that
other thing instead. No other job has less security or more
ego-crushing crap than this one does.
Fingerprints: What has been your most interesting
experience as a crime writer?
Rob: Winning the
Arthur Ellis Award for Best
Short Story of 1993 and the looks I
got as I took that trophy of a hanging man home on the subway
Fingerprints: You are the only writer to have won the
science-fiction awards from Canada,
United States, France, and Japan. How has this affected your
writing? Your life?
Rob: It hasn't changed what I write, but I suppose it has
changed my lifestyle a bit; I have a certain degree of comfort
now, thanks especially to having won the Science Fiction and
Fantasy Writers of America's
Nebula Award for Best Novel of the
Year. Winning that more than doubled my advances in the U.S.,
Britain, and Japan, and landed me publishers in France, Germany,
Holland, Italy, Poland, and Spain. It's been a huge boost.
More Good Reading
Other interviews with Rob
Rob's Sherlock Holmes short story
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